Today is a national holiday of the highest order. What is it you ask? Some kind of remembrance day whereby we honor those who came before us? Hardly. Today is National Pizza Day. While this holiday might be “unofficial” it certainly lives in the hearts and minds of American everywhere. According to the Pizza Joint, a website which tracks pizza statistics and offers pizza based analysis, Americans consume almost 350 slices per second, which averages out to almost 100 acres of pizza a day.
Given that pizza plays such an integral role in our lives it is often easy to overlook the rich tradition and history that surrounds this delectable circle of delight. As with most things, it’s origin story is shrouded in mystery, but some historians believe that a version of modern day pizza was developed by the ancient Romans. Thought to look like modern focaccia, the ancient Romans referred to this as “panis focacius”, a flatbread that toppings were added to. Modern pizza, as we perceive it today, can be traced to modern-day Naples. Carol Helstosky in her seminal masterpiece, Pizza: A Global History makes the case that pizza was for the working poor, a food that could be bought based on the size of what a person could afford.
“Thus, pizza was more than just an example of a regional culinary curiosity, it was a ‘the gastronomic thermometer of the market’ and therefore of Neapolitan society,” wrote Helstosky.
As President Trump’s immigration debate rages on in the US, it is important to remember that pizza – selling three billion pies a year – was a food imported by Italian immigrants who came to the US in waves, but none greater than between 1880-1914. This also coincided with the first pizzeria, thought to be Lombardi’s in Manhattan, which opened in 1904. Nonetheless, the pizza revolution in the US swept through the middle class in the years right after WW2, shedding the image as a food of the Italian working poor. As Helstosky pointed out, this is when pizza started to lose its ethnic character by embedding itself in the cultural consciousness as a food for kids, college students, or props in films and movies.
Today, pizza is a 30 billion dollar a year industry spread across almost 61,000 pizzerias in the US – that’s a lot of dough (zing, zam, cue drum roll). It is also a global staple available just about anywhere in the world. Conversely, pizza was one of the first foods brought back to Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, having been banned as a “capitalist snack food”. Helstonsky brings up another salient point in our hyper-connected global age, “the globalization of pizza has led to greater localization of the food as consumers make their own pizza concoctions…” Nowhere is this truer than in Richmond, which has its share of great pizzerias like Belmont, 8 1/2, Stuzzi, Graffiato, and Chanellos, each of whom has customized pizza in their own devilishly sacrilicious ways.
However, next time you decide to go have a slice, make sure and ask where the real National Pizza Day specials were?